National Trust rescues collection of rare cider apples

An internationally important collection of nearly 300 cider apple varieties has been given to the National Trust.

George Holmes, area ranger for South Somerset. Image: National Trust / Simon Haywood
George Holmes, area ranger for South Somerset. Image: National Trust / Simon Haywood

Slack-ma-Girdle, Netherton Late Blower and Billy Down Pippin are among the rare apple varieties in the 'National Cider Apple' collection established over the course of more than 25 years by collector and donor Henry May.

Propagation began last year to allow the trees to be moved from the Tidnor orchard in Herefordshire to one of eight National Trust properties. At least two trees of each variety not already in the trust's care have been propagated at the trust's Plant Conservation Centre. Where possible trees will be planted in their county of origin, including Somerset, Gloucestershire, Devon, Dorset and Herefordshire.

David Bullock, head of nature conservation for the National Trust, said: "To be given this collection is a fantastic privilege. The National Trust is committed to looking after and protecting traditional fruit orchards, which are not only a beautiful spectacle for visitors to enjoy, but are incredibly important for many species of insects, birds and plants."

Orchards provide important habitats for species including mistletoe, mistletoe moth, the mistle thrush, bullfinch and corky fruited water dropwort.

Bullock added: "Orchards are part of our national heritage so it's vital that this collection is protected for future generations to enjoy. Each variety will be planted in two locations to help future-proof them from diseases while ensuring that there are plenty of opportunities for our visitors to enjoy them too."

The trees are expected to begin bearing fruit in around seven years' time, when it is hoped that many of the apples will be used to produce cider.

In 2007, traditional orchards were designated a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The habitat has declined rapidly since the 1950s, with more than 90 per cent of traditional orchards in England lost in 60 years.

Montacute House in Somerset will receive part of the collection. A recent conservation study of the Elizabethan property revealed that the 19th century aspects of the estate were once home to several fruit orchards. Now, thanks to the donation, 95 varieties of the cider apple trees will be planted in the grounds, helping to restore this historic landscape feature.

Area ranger George Holmes, who is leading on the project at Montacute, said: "Over the past few weeks we've been preparing the ground ready for the arrival of these trees. We've also been busy building the tree guards that are needed to keep the young tree trunks protected from any damage that would weaken the trees or make them susceptible to diseases.

"Once the trees are in place, we will be opening up this area of the estate to visitors so that they can enjoy walking through the orchards."

Other cider apple trees will go to Killerton in Devon, Brockhampton in Herefordshire, Tyntesfield in North Somerset, Barrington Court and Glastonbury in Somerset, Westbury Court Garden in Gloucestershire and Golden Cap in Dorset.

Steve Oram, orchard biodiversity officer for the People's Trust for Endangered Species, helped to arrange the gifting of the collection to the National Trust.

Oram said: "When I spoke to Henry May about his desire to pass on the collection, I knew that the National Trust would have the expertise and, importantly, land to look after this collection, protecting its future.

"Orchards are a mosaic habitat which contain elements of woodland, pasture, meadow grassland and are often bordered by hedgerows. This combination of habitats means that you have a unique wildlife haven supporting a vast range of species.

"But orchards are first and foremost about the fruit and how we use it, which is why it is critical that this vast diversity of varieties is not only preserved for future generations but put to use today."

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